A Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nests on the beach on South Padre Island. (Courtesy photo/Sea Turtle, Inc.)

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — Now through September, many female sea turtles will be traveling toward the Texas Coast to find their desired nesting locations.

Because of this, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) representatives are urging Texas coastal visitors to do their part in helping protect these threatened and endangered sea turtles that are making their way to the beach.

According to FWS representatives, these species include threatened loggerhead and green sea turtles, as well as Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, which are the most critically endangered sea turtles in the world.

“Kemp’s ridley sea turtles usually come ashore during the daylight hours to lay eggs in the sand,” FWS’ press release states. “The green sea turtle and loggerhead sea turtle nest along the Texas coast but in smaller numbers than the Kemp’s ridley, and unlike the Kemp’s ridley, usually come ashore at night.”

From digging in the sand to covering their nest and returning to the ocean, Sea Turtle, Inc. personnel say Kemp’s ridley sea turtles’ entire nesting process takes only about 45 minutes to complete.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are considered the smallest species of sea turtles.

They measure about two-feet-long and can weigh up to 100-pounds.

According to FWS representatives, 190 Kemp’s ridley nests were found in Texas during 2019.

“The Texas coast is an area of significant importance to the conservation and recovery of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles,” FWS Regional Director Amy Lueders stated in a press release. “Visitors to the Texas coast can play an essential role in protecting Kemp’s ridley sea turtles by identifying and reporting any nests or hatchlings that they see.”

FWS representatives advise beachgoers that come across a nesting sea turtle to report it by calling 1-866-887-8535.

“If you observe and report a sea turtle, please remain at the site until a biologist arrives, if possible,” FWS’ press release states. “Visitors should keep their distance and must not disturb sea turtles or the nesting sites.”

Local assistance

The FWS, along with the National Park Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas A&M University at Galveston, Turtle Island Restoration Network, the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, and Sea Turtle, Inc. will be working together to coordinate a response when a nesting sea turtle or nest is found.

According to Sea Turtle, Inc. executive director Jeff George, the South Padre Island area is usually about two weeks or so behind the time when nesting sea turtles arrive on the beaches in Tamaulipas.

George said Tamaulipas had their first sea turtle nest on March 24.

“The earliest we’ve ever had a nest in Texas was here in South Padre Island on a March 30,” George said on March 30. “So we are expecting probably our first nest in the next week or so.”

According to George, Sea Turtle, Inc. has special permission from Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino, Jr. to conduct limited beach patrols with full-time staff during this coronavirus pandemic.

“Our first priority is to keep our staff, volunteers and the public safe,” George said. “So we’re abiding by the shelter in place order, but we do have permission for very limited patrols.”

George said when the shelter in place mandate is lifted, they would then resume more patrol efforts.

“When the public is able to again enjoy the beaches of South Padre, it’s very important that we’re going to need to rely on them because we will be doing a reduced patrol effort, that they call and report any sea turtle that they see on the beach,” George said.

A nesting Kemp’s ridley sea turtle rests near some vegetation on South Padre Island. (Courtesy photo/Sea Turtle, Inc.)

Kemp’s Ridley project

According to FWS representatives, 2020 marks 42-years of bi-national Kemp’s ridley sea turtle conservation efforts.

“In 1947, an estimated 40,000 Kemp’s ridley turtles nested on one stretch of beach near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico,” FWS’ press release states. “This was the only known nesting site at that time.”

During the next four decades, the species suffered a 99.4 percent reduction in nests, according to FWS representatives.

In response to the devastating decline of the species, FWS representatives and partner agencies launched a cooperative international project in 1978.

The project focuses on nest protection efforts in the U.S. and Mexico through implementing regulations that require the use of turtle excluder devices on commercial fishing trawlers.

Additionally, the project establishes a second nesting colony of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles at the Padre Island National Seashore, where historical nesting had been documented.

According to FWS representatives, cooperative efforts are paying off for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

“The largest number recorded in Texas since 1978 was in 2017, when 353 nests were documented,” FWS’ press release states. “The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle remains the most critically endangered species in the world; therefore, bi-national conservation efforts must continue to fully recover the species.”